Anyone familiar with the 1980s remembers crotch-rocket motorcycles and every teenage boy’s need for speed. I don’t entirely blame Tom Cruise, but it was probably his fault when Joey asked his doting mom for a Kawasaki Ninja to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. My dance with death was amped up a couple notches as we were provided the perfect vehicle to embark on a crazy journey near the end of March 1987, just weeks before a seventeenth birthday I was trying desperately to miss.
Joey showed up at my door early one morning as I was getting ready for school. He was wearing skin-tight Levi’s pegged into the top of white leather Reebok high-tops and a sleeveless Def Leppard concert shirt with a jean-jacket vest over it. The only indication of our impending trip was the shiny red motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm. It didn’t take much to talk me out of going school and into visiting one of his many girlfriends instead. I slipped into my leather jacket, grabbed my Marlboro reds and away we went.
I climbed on back of his sleek red motorcycle, not really questioning my lack of a helmet as Joey spun a tight 180-degree circle in our dirt yard and took off like a shot, engine echoing like an angry bee in the quiet streets. It wasn’t long before we were following his single headlight through ghostly farms on the right and left, blinking through small towns along the way. It was my first time on a motorcycle since Doctor Demented conned my dad into letting me go for a ride on his massive Honda Gold Wing cruising bike (painted unapologetically gold) a year or two after mom left him. Riding behind Joey was a much scarier proposition than riding behind a psychopath, strangely enough, so I locked my arms around his waist and tucked my forehead into his back to keep my glasses from flying off my face.
It seemed like forever but was only a half hour or so before we stopped at the apartment complex where his gorgeous girlfriend and her sister were waiting. Despite my svelte wife’s claims to the contrary, I have never had a taste for the larger ladies, so there was no love connection made while Joey took care of his business in the bedroom. I hung out chatting with the sister, doing bong hits and watching MTV until we said goodbye around noon.
We climbed back on the bike and pointed ourselves north as the sun rose into a brilliant blue sky. Rather than turning east toward Yuba City, though, we hooked left and chased our lengthening shadows toward the small coastal town of Eureka in Humboldt County. We heard there was good weed to be had there, so it seemed an obvious choice of destinations when we decided to extend the day trip into a road trip even though we didn’t know anyone there to hook us up. We also didn’t have any money, which should have been our first deterrent. We did have a mostly full tank and the Ninja’s 500cc engine sipped gas ridiculously slow, so while we thought getting to Eureka was theoretically within our reach, heading into the mountains in late March with only a single long-sleeved jacket between us remained a very bad idea.
We took highway 20 into the foothills south of the Mendocino National Forest and followed its meandering path in an upward trajectory until it turned into highway 101, the famed California coastal highway. As the altitude increased, we pulled over to trade jackets at some point because Joey was having a tough time driving as the wind turned brisk and almost dumped the bike on a hairy curve. It was the one and only time I tried to drive a motorcycle as well at the rest stop with a dirt parking lot where we pulled over. Joey talked me through the clutch mechanism and gas and gears. I promptly popped the clutch and dumped the bike on its side, breaking the right front blinker. My friend reacted with peals of laughter that nearly left him on the ground. I was sure he would go red with rage.
Instead, he slipped into my jacket and said we would have to work on me driving at a later date using his much smaller dirt bike, though we never did. Back on the road, now wearing only a concert T-shirt and jean vest, I tucked my arms in between us to remain as small as I could within the limited confines of geometry. The sun kept me semi-warm while we remained in the high valleys, away from the towering redwoods and pines of the steep coastal mountains growing larger in the distance. Joey pulled into one of the random subdivisions scattered along that stretch of California high country when the bike started to sputter on our last vestiges of fuel around three. Large houses sat on massive lots with outbuildings and sheds to search for gas if we couldn’t get someone to give it to us first.
We only found a few people at home and none could donate to the cause, so we wandered aimlessly for an hour, cutting across yards and ducking into sheds. Houses with cars in the driveway were avoided. No one ever questioned our right to be there and eventually we laid our hands on a half-full, five-gallon can of gas that was conveniently waiting inside a detached garage with an unlocked door. We also snagged a bungee cord to lock the can to bumper behind my seat for future use and a blue plastic tarp that might come in handy. After a short hike, we gassed the bike up and were ready to hit the road.
The sun was heading toward the horizon as we began climbing the final stretch of steep miles toward the tiny town of Eureka in search of killer Humboldt County weed. We mentally high-fived each other as we passed the sign for Humboldt Redwoods State Park, neither of us realizing we would be spending our night there and counting on the generosity of strangers when our stay in Eureka met the limits of our abilities for larceny and we turned toward home a couple of hours later. We crested a final rise just as thick fog rolled in to blanket the quiet town.
I still don’t know what we expected to find when we got there, but it certainly wasn’t a tiny village overlooking a series of bays and marinas. Boats of all descriptions and sizes filled every available berth, most still closed up and waiting for Marin County families to take them out on long fishing excursion this summer, but a couple brave souls were coming in from a chilly day on the water. We cruised up and down the deserted streets for a little while before we found some docks shrouded in darkness and silence. Joey parked the bike in a mostly empty lot and we started checking the cabin doors of boats until we found one unlocked.
Again, I am baffled by the fact that we didn’t get caught, because the huge vessel we selected wasn’t exactly hidden from view, even with the impenetrable fog, and the lights we turned on below decks had to have brightened the portholes for anyone walking by outside. We got lucky for sure. We spent an hour or so searching the nooks and crannies of the boat, looking for anything we could use to survive a night in the mountains. Some stale crackers and a few bottles of wine that had almost turned to vinegar was the extent of our haul, which was carefully wrapped into an faded sweatshirt and a couple of old T-shirts used as rags. A dingy tied up at the dock provided just enough siphoned gas to refill our now empty five gallon can. We crept out with our booty and climbed on the bike, slipping out of town like we were never there.
Less than an hour later, we stopped for the night in the campgrounds we had passed on our way in. Not many people were camping that night, but we managed to scrounge leftovers from a couple of retirees and start a raging campfire with some of our remaining gasoline while we drank the nasty ass “wine” we had liberated from the boat. I distinctly remember puking at some point before we curled up on top of a blue plastic tarp and snuggled close under my leather jacket, a blanket provided by a fellow camper to conserve what little heat our skinny bodies provided to ward off the chill. It was an uncomfortable night of tossing and turning and feeding the fire from the stack of wood we had gathered. We set off the next day into the rising sun to do the same trip in reverse.
We got back to Yuba City before noon and Joey dropped me back off at my empty house. Dad defeated cancer at the cost of his left kidney, so he was back working and not home when I arrived from my adventure. I remember eating two Frank ‘n Stuff chilidogs (newly introduced by Hormel and came in a cheese version as well) washed down with an ice cold Dr. Pepper, before collapsing on my twin bed in the eight by ten foot bedroom we shared. The old man woke me up hours later when dinner was ready. He didn’t ask where I’d been overnight, so I assume he spent his evening downing gin and tonics and playing darts at his default bar a short walk from the house while Joey and I took our chances on the road. Nothing was said about missing school for two days, not even when I showed up the next morning to finish the final months of eleventh grade.